Monthly Archives: January 2013

In Quietness and Rest

For most of this week, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. I’ve been busy and tired, feeling as though I’m being pulled in a hundred different directions. To be honest, I haven’t really had much time for God this week and even when I did make the time I haven’t been able shut off my mind long enough to focus on Him. As a result, I’ve found myself feeling rather distant from God; I’ve missed that sense of God’s immediate presence in my life.

I got to share with a friend how I’ve been feeling lately. I really didn’t want to. I’m not very comfortable talking about how I feel, especially about abstract feelings of vague dissatisfaction and distance; I’d much rather deal in more defined emotions like anger or fear. I didn’t really want to share with my friend how I was feeling, but I respect his wisdom and I needed an opportunity to process, so I did. I’d like to share with you a principle he reminded me of that’s been a real blessing for me.

Sabbath

Sabbath is introduced in Exodus 20:8-11 as part of a section of commandments we call the ten commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

The Sabbath can be defined as a day of spiritually focused rest. It was a day in which God’s people did no work so they could focus all their energies on seeking God. On this day, the priests would perform many services on behalf of the people and the entire nation’s eyes were directed towards God.

This particular command is repeated often throughout the Old Testament. Of all the commandments God gives His people for the purpose of glorifying His name among the nations, the Sabbath seems to receive particular attention. Its institution is tied back to the creation account in Genesis 1, which models even God resting on the seventh day.

God reveals some of His intent behind establishing the Sabbath through the prophet Ezekiel.

“I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” (Ezekiel 20:11, 12)

The Sabbath, in some sense, symbolizes the unique authority of God in the life of the one who observes it. According to this passage, the Sabbath was to show the world that God sanctified its observer. Some verses later, the Sabbath was reintroduced as a sign to the observer themselves or God’s authority.

Jesus had an interesting relationship with the Sabbath. He would sometimes heal on the Sabbath to irk the religious leaders of the day and clarify God’s vision for the Sabbath. On one occasion, He’s walking with His disciples in a field on the Sabbath and they begin to pluck some grains of wheat to the dismay of those ultra-orthodox religious leaders. In a scene that gets repeated a lot in Jesus’ ministry, they challenge Jesus about this. Jesus replies them, saying

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:26,27)

Jesus doesn’t condemn the Sabbath, but rather the legalism of the religious leaders. The Sabbath was meant not only to show the believer’s dependence on God but to serve the believer. We were never meant to be enslaved to a system of religious observance but to be blessed by God’s provision of rest. God is the focus of the Sabbath, and not the Sabbath itself.

Why Sabbath?

Taking a Sabbath day is a practice I enjoyed during the first semester of this year. I was busier than I had ever been with new responsibilities with my campus ministry and with school, yet I found myself enjoying God more than I had at any point in my life. I made sure I took a day off everything each week to have an extended quiet time with God and to rest physically. It wasn’t easy and generally left me with more work for the other six days.

I don’t think I realized how valuable the Sabbath was until this semester. Deprived of this spiritually focused rest, I found myself necessarily relying on my own strength to serve God on my campus. My quiet times were simply not enough to quiet my heart in true dependence on God, and though they were regular(ish), I was not growing much in intimacy with God.

Why is spiritually focused rest important in the life of the believer? We are not mandated to find our salvation by observance of the Old Testament laws and so the Sabbath is not a ritual we must practice to please God; we please God by expressing faith in Jesus for reconciliation with God and living life with a mindset to please God by the empowering presence of His Holy Spirit within us. There is no law about when the Sabbath must be or even how long it must be observed for. Yet there are some principles within the Sabbath that have some value to the Christian today.

Sabbath requires faith: Very few people have time to take a Sabbath; there is always something we can be doing with any free time. A Sabbath is often something that needs to be scheduled in faith, trusting that God will redeem the time we take off.

Sabbath allows rest: This is especially important to anyone who spends significant time attending to the spiritual needs of others, either by introducing them to Jesus or helping them grow in knowing Him. This is more draining than we realize and we need to rest or risk burnout.

Sabbath allows reflection: I find that there are so many moments in which God reveals truths about Himself, about me or the world around me. These truths often go unrecognized or forgotten unless I take time to reflect and process what’s going on around me. I love journaling on a Sabbath because it helps me organize my thoughts and understand my thoughts and emotions.

Sabbath builds discipline: For a Sabbath to be truly restful, it needs to be planned. Work needs to be scheduled around it so it can be enjoyed without anxiety. This builds discipline in a very practical sense; at the very least it builds the discipline of time management.

Sabbath glorifies God: Jesus said, “The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is a spiritual discipline which re-establishes God on the throne of your life as it is practiced. Our hearts are reminded once again to remain dependent on Him in prayer, meditation on His Word, reflection on His blessings and preparation for His mission.

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
But you were unwilling, and you said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”;
therefore you shall flee away;
and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”;
therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
A thousand shall flee at the threat of one;
at the threat of five you shall flee,
till you are left
like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,
like a signal on a hill.

Isaiah 20:15-17

Why I Love Worship

One of my favorite features of Christianity is the phenomenon of musical worship. The ability of music to stimulate the religious imagination is not unique to Christianity. Throughout human history, music has always been incorporated into religious expression. There seems to be something within the human nature that finds itself drawn to the divine in the presence of music.

I made the decision to commit my life to following Jesus during a worship service. The simple words of a song broke through my intellectual barriers and fierce independence to deliver a promise. I can still remember the lyrics that moved my heart to submission: “I see a generation rising up to take their place in selfless praise.” I was looking for purpose in life, and this song showed me an idea I could live for. n that moment I wanted nothing more than to see that generation rising up in selfless praise. I wanted to lead others to worship God; nothing less in life would do.

Worship is powerful. It’s spectacular when many people come together to worship. Worship is the force God used to break down the walls of Jericho as a nation cowered inside. Jehoshaphat sent the worship band in front of his army and God scattered his enemy. Paul and Silas worshipped in prison and God shook the foundations of the building and opened the prison doors.

Many of my favorite memories of worship times have come in large groups. I’ve been to a number of student conferences and I’m always inspired to sing and shout with hundreds of other students as we all worship God together. Group worship is amazing because no matter what back-story every individual brings to the experience, it is set aside as all voices are lifted up in unity. The object of our worship takes center stage and the worshippers become secondary.

As wonderful as group worship can be, individual worship can speak to the heart just as strongly. David understood very well the power of musical worship. Psalm 42 is a beautiful song that begins with David in tears. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” And through the process of the song, he teaches himself to find his hope in God. When David worshipped, King Saul’s torments left him for a time.

In my experience, worship is one way that I find my joy in God. In times of insecurity, doubt and sorrow, singing a song to God grounds me again in His grace. Worship songs convey theological truths to the heart. They remind us how to respond to Jesus.

I think it’s no mistake that Revelation’s picture of heaven is full of worship songs. God’s holiness is proclaimed frequently and this book has inspired many of our modern day worship songs. I love the idea that singing songs to God doesn’t end with this life. It tells me that worshipping God is more than an emotional experience. God already promises that there will be no more tears, mourning, crying or pain in heaven (Revelation 21:4). If emotional uplifting is all worship was about, it wouldn’t be necessary in heaven. Worship is a deeply spiritual experience that is as much about God as it is about us.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
tell of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before Him;
strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.
Psalm 96:1-6

The Fragrance of Death

I’m a people person; I love being with people. I’m an extrovert by nature and I’m recharged when I’m in a group. I love to be the center of attention and I’ve become very good at handling a crowd. There’s a darker side to my nature though, a nature that not only enjoys but craves the affirmation of people. Sometimes being the center of attention is all about satisfying my need for approval. As I’ve grown in relationship with God, He’s been changing my heart to find true satisfaction in Him. I’ve learned to increasingly desire His approval more than that of others and this has affected how I interact with people. While I still enjoy being the center of attention, I’ve become just as comfortable on the periphery allowing others to enjoy the spotlight. I’ve learned to genuinely laugh when someone else’s joke is funnier than mine, and to enjoy the stories that are more incredible than mine. It’s truly amazing the work that God has and continues to do in my heart in this area.

When it comes to evangelism, though, I still find myself more concerned about earning the respect of people than pleasing God. I know that the gospel is offensive by nature, but if there’s any way I can present Jesus without offending I pursue it at all costs. I desperately fear coming off as a fanatic and so I find myself presenting the gospel as an opinion, as though the truth that saved me and is transforming my life is nothing more than an interesting philosophy to consider.

Paul challenges this mindset in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”

Through us, God spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. Jesus came on earth as one of us to display God to a world separated from Him. We needed to see God in this way because when we see His reflection in creation, our sinful nature chooses to worship the creation and loses sight of the creator. Jesus came and through Him we have seen the glory of God. More than that, we now reflect that glory as God’s spirit continues to transform our lives. We are illustration of God to a fallen world. Does that scare you? When someone wonders where God is, you and I are the ones who are to display His presence. We are the body of Christ, continuing the ministry of revelation that Jesus began here on earth. According to John’s gospel, after teaching His disciples that through Him they have seen God, Jesus tells them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). It is through us that the fragrance of the knowledge of God is diffused through the world.

So how does Paul describe this fragrance? To some, we carry the fragrance of life. This is the thing that gets me excited about sharing my faith. I get to be a messenger of hope, satisfaction, love, acceptance, redemption, forgiveness and eternal life. I get to be a doctor telling someone their cancer is gone for good. I get to be a judge delivering an acquittal. I get to be a detective telling a parent their child has been found. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. But more than salvation to eternal life, the gospel is the message of reconciliation to God. God’s heart is so invested in His creation that He wants to satisfy us with His presence. Everything we yearn for as humans is ultimately a reflection of God’s very nature: acceptance, unconditional love, power, success, peace, justice, forgiveness. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). In sharing the gospel, we are letting people know that they can go straight to the source of all our cravings to be satisfied.

If Paul had ended there, it would have been awesome. Unfortunately there are two groups of people who must hear the gospel. To one group, we will be the fragrance of life to life; to the other, we will be a fragrance of death to death. The gospel message for many is that there is a God who will absolutely destroy them for their treason against His sovereignty. Jesus Himself said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Revelation 19:11-21 presents a picture of Jesus coming and slaughtering an army that comes up against Him. In sharing the gospel, we’re telling people that they are actually not good people, that God is not giving free passes or comparing us to each other but to Himself. The gospel tells people they don’t get to be neutral, but that they must make a decision to worship God or forever be His enemy.

One of the ways I see this is in the book of Acts. In the first three chapters, Peter gives two awesome gospel presentations. One crowd repents and 3000 people join the radical community of believers (Acts 2:40-47), the other crowd gets annoyed and has him arrested though many believe (Acts 4:1-4). As you continue to read the book, you see that coupled with almost every large conversion, the apostles faced persecution from people who hated the gospel. In order for them to be a fragrance of life to some, they became the fragrance of death to many and it cost them.

I know I’m not the only one who wants the gospel to be acceptable to everyone. I receive and give a lot of training on how to present Jesus with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15) and I think it’s important to engage with how Jesus satisfies philosophically, morally, logically, spiritually, etc. That being said, the gospel is a polarizing truth; it will require acceptance or rejection when presented in its fullness. And like every aspect of Christian living, evangelism requires us to be empowered by God’s spirit. “Who is sufficient for these things?

I want to encourage my brothers and sisters as I have been recently encouraged. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). God is making his fragrance known to the world through us. To some we will be well received as messengers of hope and salvation; to others we will be the fragrance of death.  But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession!

Seven Reasons To Go On A Summer Mission Trip

I remember in my first year of university, I went to a Christian conference where I was first introduced to the idea of doing missions. What a mind blowing concept! I could go to another country and tell people about Jesus and somehow this was a good thing. Please try to understand where I was coming from: Just two months before then, I was planning to walk away from my faith and God had worked through a similar Christian get-together to remind me how good He was. For two months, I had been discovering God for the second time but still very insecure in my faith. I hadn’t shared my faith and I wasn’t sure I knew what the gospel really was. Yet when this idea was introduced to me, I had a sense that I should at least consider the idea of investing my time into some spiritual thing.

I wonder if there are others in the same situation I found myself three years ago. Most Christians have heard of the Great Commission and know we’re supposed to tell people about Jesus, but how are we actually supposed to step out? In our age of Christianity, there are many diverse opportunities to serve people by introducing them to Jesus. One such opportunity is to go on a summer mission trip. I know these are not for everyone, but I’d like to suggest a few good reasons to seriously consider going.

Because It Creates Momentum: Have you ever tried to drive up a steep hill in an old car? Anyone who has knows there are two ways to go about it: you can start at the bottom and work your way slowly up, or start further back and get a running start. One way has a higher chance of success than the other. Getting into a lifestyle of evangelism is hard and not too different from trying to drive up a hill. A summer mission trip can be a huge running start. Get comfortable and experienced at sharing the gospel in a team of committed Christians who can provide training and support. Do it a lot and come back home with some momentum to help share with friends and family.

Because of the Cultural Experience: There’s a saying that goes, “Fish don’t know they’re in water; they’re so surrounded by it that it’s impossible to see.” We humans are the same with our culture. What’s good about your culture? What are your cultural weaknesses? Understanding culture is an important tool in being a relevant agent of the gospel. Experiencing another culture can open your eyes to how your culture truly serves and hinders the penetration of the gospel.

Because of the Community: Most people who go on a summer mission trip are desperately imperfect people committed to experiencing and sharing God’s grace. Sound like you? We were created by God to know Him in community and there are few community building experiences like serving on a missions team with others. You find yourself constantly being challenged and encouraged. What’s more, somehow God uses you to encourage and challenge your teammates and you all find your faith in God growing deeper. And if you’re single…

Because You Can’t Do It: Paul talks about boasting in his weaknesses because God’s strength is displayed more awesomely. In my experience I find that few things in my daily routine really make me feel weak. I know all the rules, I know the expectations and I know how to meet them. A mission trip takes you out of routine, and pushes you beyond your limits. Even just the strain of remaining spiritual and obedient for the length of the trip is impossible to do in your own strength. That’s when you have no choice but to go to God. Your weaknesses will be magnified and exposed, and God will work through those to make Himself known.

Because It Builds Faith: Everything about a mission trip is designed to build faith. Many trips require you to raise the funds to go, which is often more than you’ve ever been responsible for obtaining. You may be challenged to build relationships with people very different from yourself, teach on a spiritual topic, do a style of ministry you’re not comfortable with or even lead in a way you haven’t before. And when you see God make these things happen, your faith will grow. Psalm 34:8 says, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” There’s a huge difference between knowing that God is good, and experiencing it firsthand.

Because Jesus Asks For Our Lives: Jesus taught His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). When was the last time your faith cost you something? When was the last time you gave up something valuable in the pursuit of Jesus? What excuses can you come up with for not sacrificing time, money, job prospects in order to help people hear that God died so they could know Him?

Because You Are God’s Plan to Change the World: Wanna hear something crazy? The perfect creator of the universe concocted a plan to invade the world He created and save His creation from their own nature. And He’s decided that it’s up to people like you and me to tell everyone about it. Sometimes I wish God decided to make His presence known in a flashier, more impressive way; but He didn’t. Instead, He chose to trust us with the solution to man’s deepest problem. Who have you told?

Summer missions trips are not for everybody. Not everyone has the opportunity to go, and some of us are being used by God in awesome ways where we are. But if there is an opportunity for you to go, I would urge you to consider making yourself available to experience God in a new context.

A Definitive Guide to Discerning God’s Will

I don’ think I’ve ever heard God speak. I mean, I can’t recall a time where I’ve felt any external conviction to make a particular decision that could only be attributed to God’s special revelation. I believe it happens; I know people who have had that experience. I’ve often wondered if my natural skepticism prevents me from hearing God speak. But it can’t be that I don’t have enough faith to hear from God. Moses wasn’t a model of faith when God appeared to him. Samuel didn’t even recognize God when he was called. Paul saw Jesus when he was actively persecuting His church. God, as I see Him revealed in the bible, is big enough to make Himself heard when He wants to. It doesn’t make sense to say that a God who destroyed entire cities would have trouble getting the attention of an overly rational 20 year old.

I’ve prayed to hear God’s voice many times in my life. One specific instance I can recall was in my grade 12 year. I had received acceptance from three very good universities for programs and I wanted to know where God wanted me to study. I prayed for days, fasted and attended every church service I could in hopes of convincing God to tell me what He wanted me to do. This was a very scary time for me: What if I chose the wrong school and ended up outside God’s perfect will for four years? The time soon came for me to make a decision and I’d heard nothing from God. I made my own choice and in retrospect, my time at McMaster University has been amazing, filled with so many opportunities for spiritual, social and emotional growth. God has taken my time at McMaster and used it to change my life and teach me about Himself. Yet in the summer before my first year, I made a decision to walk away from my faith. There were a number of reasons for that, only one of which was God’s apparent silence at critical decisions in my life. But that experience did play a role in my attempted apostasy.

Since that time, how have I learned to discern God’s will? I’d like present my thoughts and experience by looking at Romans 12:2:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

My first observations are the words conformed and transformed. No thesaurus in the world lists transformation as an opposite of conformation. Antonyms of conform include: differ, fight, refuse, deviate, disagree, object, protest; not transform. So these are not parallel opposing instructions. Transformation is much deeper and more radical than conformation. The fact is that being able to discern God’s will is not something that is within our human nature. We need to become something other than what we are by nature. Christians have another word for this becoming-otherness: sanctification. Dear Christian, do not be upset that you’re not naturally good at discerning God’s will; this is a gift that is progressively built in us as we grow in God.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, we are introduced to what appears to be a young church full of faith and love and in which the gospel is bearing obvious fruit. And in encouraging them, Paul prays for them saying, “we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9, 10). Knowing God`s will is a part of our sanctification. It’s something that increases over time as we grow in intimacy with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God.

My second observation is that this transformation happens by renewing our minds, not the other way around. That`s to say, this transformation doesn’t cause our intellect and reasoning to become different, but our reason and intellect drive this transformation. This is not to neglect the role of God`s Holy Spirit is changing us to reflect Jesus’ glory and character. The bible always describes sin and sanctification as beginning internally (Mark 7:20-23, Psalm 119:36, Proverbs 4:23).

Understanding God’s will involves our mental faculties being made new in some way. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled “The Necessity of Theology” in which I discussed how the bible sanctifies us. God uses the reading of His Word to make us look more like Jesus. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Being in God’s Word is essential for understanding God’s Will. God’s nature is revealed in His Word and spending time getting to know God transforms our understanding of ourselves and our world. In His Word, our ways of thinking about everything becomes aligned to His will.

The final observation I want to make is that God’s will is discerned by testing. God’s will is seen most clearly in hindsight. After we recognize that we’re not naturally good naturally disposed towards knowing God’s will but pursue a renewal of our minds through God’s Word, we’re going to have to make a decision and go with it. We’re going to have to trust that our renewed minds are able to choose rightly. God rarely shows us exactly how things are going to play out in our future; He simply calls us to trust Him. His has promised us that, “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Four years ago, I made a decision to attend McMaster University. I had no guarantee that this was the right decision or idea of how it would turn out. I don’t know how my life would have turned out if I went to another school, but I know that my time at McMaster was used by God to shape my character today. I was simply a Christian who loved God and I made a decision. I can think of many other situations where I was faced with a difficult decision, and with a heart seeking to honour God with my life I made the decision that seemed most right at the time, and God worked things out. It’s frustrating because it forces us to work, think, weigh the pros and cons, and then take a step of faith. It means that until we can look back safely from the other side, we have no way of knowing we are on the right path except by faith. It means that we are not immune from making mistakes and we don’t get to blame God for those. But true faith in God steps out to do something, trusting God’s promise.

With all that being said, I can also offer a few practical tips in decision making:

  • Seek wise counsel: God has blessed us to live out our faith in community with other Christians. Ask for their advice in tough decisions
  • Don’t be too hasty: This is particularly hard for me to practice, but time often brings clarity in making decisions
  • Pray: Just because God doesn’t always highlight the right path doesn’t means it’s not good to pray. At the very least, prayer centers our motives and intentions on bringing glory to God.
  • Be decisive: Once you make a decision, go hard with it. If you’re right, you’ll be glad you didn’t waver; if you’re wrong, you’ll discover it quickly and have time to move on.